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Strategic Succession Planning: Secure Your Family's Business Future

Karen Norheim- CEO of American Crane
Karen Norheim- CEO of American Crane

Summary

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Gene Marks [00:00:00 - 00:00:13]

You had mentioned as well about putting, like, laying down the groundwork for succession planning. So a lot of the people that listen and watch this, you know, this show are employer-owned businesses. A lot of them are thinking about succession planning, as well.

 

Karen Norheim [00:00:13 - 00:01:19]

He owned the company 100% and he wanted to pass it on to the two of us. So, that did make it, make it simple. But I did, you know, we had, at the time, I had progressed, I had progressed through my career from, you know, marketing coordinator, IT coordinator into a vice president.

 

I was part of the leadership team since probably, like I said, around the, I think it was around the 2015 timeframe. And I said to my dad, I said, hey, listen, like, we gotta have a plan. Like, you can't just leave me here hanging with, hanging, holding the bag and out there hanging, like, you know, we have to, we have to make sure that we have something in place, whatever you want to do. And it was, it was very emotional for my father, that conversation. But thank God we did.

 

It turned into us really putting together a plan where we created another corporation that had the real estate in it, and we had all the documents and all of the estate plan. Everything was done so that the integrity of the company would hold. And that's, you know, I view my role as CEO today is a steward to my 205 and growing employees. So, it was our responsibility to make sure that that was seamless.

 

Announcer [00:01:22 - 00:01:33]

Welcome to Paychex THRIVE, a Business Podcast, where you'll hear timely insights to help you navigate marketplace dynamics and propel your business forward. Here's your host, Gene Marks.

 

Gene Marks [00:01:38 - 00:02:29]

Hey, everybody, it's Gene Marks. And welcome back to another episode of the Paychex THRIVE podcast. Thank you so much for joining me. And by the way, if you need any advice or help tips in running your business, please sign up for our Paychex THRIVE newsletter. Go to paychex.com/thrive. You will get all the information you need to help you run your business and also some links to prior episodes of this podcast.

 

Today, our special guest is Karen Norheim. Karen is the president, CEO, and owner with your sister, right, Karen of American Crane in Douglasville, Pennsylvania, which is near Pottstown, Pennsylvania, which is near where I live in Philadelphia. And Karen, I traveled to that area many times for Little League tournament games. We've been there. There's a famous movie theater, I think, where they filmed "The Blob". Isn't that where that nearby in Pottstown? Or is that.

 

Karen Norheim [00:02:31 - 00:02:32]

It's Phoenixville.

 

Gene Marks [00:02:32 - 00:02:32]

Phoenixville.

 

Karen Norheim [00:02:32 - 00:02:42]

But it's about 30 minutes away. And I actually lived there early on in my career when I moved back to Pennsylvania. So, yes, I am familiar with The Blobfest.

 

Gene Marks [00:02:42 - 00:03:09]

Yeah, I remember that. So, it was funny because that was sort of like the main thing in Phoenixville is like the big tourist attraction. Yeah. But it's great to have you. So, thank you very much for joining.

 

Gene Marks [00:02:52 - 00:03:09]

So, Karen, lot of things to talk about today. I want to talk about your business a little bit and a little bit about you. So, let's start with the business and we'll get the boring stuff out of the way. All right. So, American Crane, tell us a little bit about the company, give us a history and tell us what you guys do.

 

Karen Norheim [00:03:09 - 00:04:33]

Sure. So, we recently hit 50 years. I think we're now up to 52 years. We were incorporated in 1972 and we're a leading manufacturer of overhead cranes and hoists. So, similar to what you might see outside for mobile cranes, we do lifting, but typically our equipment is overhead bridge cranes, which run inside of buildings, up in the ceiling on rails. And our customers are across many different applications. We work with nuclear energy, we work with NASA, we work with the semiconductor industry.

 

We as a company are very much well known for doing very difficult applications and what we call critical lifts. And the company was started by a group of Norwegians, one of which was my father. My father was an immigrant from Norway. So, three Norwegians on Old Swede Road started American Crane, and in the end, the original primary shareholder actually had some financial difficulties and ran the company in the 1980s into not a good place. And my father at the time had an opportunity and saw it and he took over full ownership of the company, took it out of Chapter 11 and turned it into the company we are today. Remarkable story.

 

Gene Marks [00:04:33 - 00:04:36]

It is an amazing story about how many people do you guys have now, approximately?

 

Karen Norheim [00:04:36 - 00:04:42]

We have 205 employees at the moment and growing.

 

Gene Marks [00:04:42 - 00:04:44]

Very cool.

 

Karen Norheim [00:04:46 - 00:05:01]

We've been adding a lot of people. So, we have, our primary corporate headquarters is in Douglasville and we also have a service center that is close by. But we do have technicians who live across the country. But yes, our primary base - and all of our manufacturing - is done in Pennsylvania.

 

Gene Marks [00:05:01 - 00:05:07]

So, you manufacture the cranes, are most of your jobs, custom jobs to your customers?

 

Karen Norheim [00:05:08 - 00:05:26]

Yes, typically we are taking and modifying it to their application and very custom. And depending on what their needs are, there can be lots of specialty controls, electrification, different pieces going on in that. So, yes, that is our typical market.

 

Gene Marks [00:05:26 - 00:05:29]

And are most of your customers domestic or do you sell overseas?

 

Karen Norheim [00:05:30 - 00:05:46]

We do a lot in the United States. I would say primarily, but we do also export. We've sent equipment to Saudi Arabia, Russia, Ireland, and, yeah, we do export also. It depends on the application, if it makes sense.

 

Gene Marks [00:05:47 - 00:05:57]

That's great. And you had said, and for some reason, I didn't even know this, but before we even started recording this call, that you and your sister are co-owners now of the company, correct?

 

Karen Norheim [00:05:58 - 00:07:12]

Yes. Yes. So, the story goes, I came to the company – I've been here almost 22 years this August, my dad recruited me. I did not want to have anything to do with overhead cranes. I didn't think that that could be very cool. But he recruited me to come and work for him. And it turns out I love manufacturing. I love what we do. Cranes are cool. And I made the best decision of my life coming here.

 

And then, you know, my sister, I was always in the business, and my sister, we live very close to the plant where we're at; she has the family and kids. And together, you know, working with my dad over the years, you know, I learned a lot about it, and then he passed away, unfortunately, in 2021. So, it's been about three years, and at that point, the business transitioned to the second generation, which is my sister and I. And we did a lot of work, you know, back probably in like, 2015 timeframe to make sure we would have that seamless transition to second gen.

 

And now, you know, it's awesome. My sister and I were really excited, loving what we're doing, and now we're working to make sure we pass it to the third gen in the long run and really do that stewardship for the future.

 

Gene Marks [00:07:12 - 00:07:15]

Do you have any other siblings, or is it just you and your sister?

 

Karen Norheim [00:07:16 - 00:07:17]

Just the two of us.

 

Gene Marks [00:07:17 - 00:07:30]

Makes it a lot easier, for sure. So, when you started, you said you started, like, you started the company about 20 years ago. I'm assuming you guys worked, did you work in the company, like, during the summer when you were kids or teenagers?

 

Karen Norheim [00:07:31 - 00:07:51]

Definitely. I mean, I've done photocopies. I answered the phones. I did data entry at some point. Oh, yeah, definitely. My sister and I, you know, my dad would come work on the weekends. We'd be playing on the dry erase boards and getting ourselves locked in the shop to go use the vending machine. Definitely a part of our family life, if that makes sense.

 

Gene Marks [00:07:52 - 00:08:00]

And where were you, I guess? Did you go to college? And was there a time between college and when you actually started working at American Crane?

 

Karen Norheim [00:08:00 - 00:08:33]

Yeah, I started out. I went to college at Penn State University. And so we are, and I ended up in New York City after I graduated, I worked for a summer program for high school students who studied abroad in France and also at Penn State. And from there I ended up in Vermont and I worked in the ski industry for several years, working in the marketing department for Stratton Mountain. I thought I would go out west and go to another ski resort and do something in that space. And I'm so glad that I've landed where I am.

 

Gene Marks [00:08:33 - 00:08:48]

You know, working the ski industry sounds very Norwegian. You probably had it in your blood. Yes, it's funny. So, you did all of that and then you ultimately came into the business. And I'm kind of curious, so what was your role when you first started with the business? Were you in sales?

 

Karen Norheim [00:08:49 - 00:09:32]

No, I was in marketing. My background was marketing and I also have affinity towards technology, so I ended up doing marketing, and information technology came under my umbrella. So, I was essentially everything help desk person. We didn't, we had outsourced it at the moment and then that evolved. And at the time I would say I was a marketing and IT coordinator, and many would say, well, how weird is that? And nowadays it makes the most sense. So, interesting how that happened and definitely have progressed and, you know, grow all that. So, I do have a master's in information technology as well as an MBA. So, I went back to school to kind of formalize some of my tech background.

 

Gene Marks [00:09:33 - 00:09:43]

Marketing is so data driven nowadays that it's so important to have that technology background. And some of the best marketers that I meet have, have a technical background for that reason, you know?

 

Karen Norheim [00:09:44 - 00:09:48]

Yeah, it's definitely, definitely important for this day and age.

 

Gene Marks [00:09:48 - 00:10:24]

It is very, very important. So, okay, so you were, you were out and about, you were doing your marketing and then you ultimately wound up with the company. You worked for the company for a while. We're going to get to that. But you had mentioned, as well, about putting like laying down the groundwork for succession planning.

 

So, a lot of the people that listen and watch this, you know, this show are employer owned businesses. A lot of them are thinking about succession planning, as well. You guys had it somewhat easy, and I'm sure it wasn't a super easy, but in the sense that there were no other partners involved, right? Like your dad owned the business and then he had two daughters.

 

Karen Norheim [00:10:24 - 00:11:58]

Yeah. So, it was, it, it was, he owned the company 100% and his right, he wanted to pass it on to the two of us. So, that did make it right for make it simple. But I did, you know, we had, at the time, I progressed, I had progressed through my career from, you know, marketing coordinator, IT coordinator into a vice president. I was part of the leadership teams. It's probably, like I said around the, I think it was around the 2015 timeframe, And I said to my dad, I said, hey, listen, like, we’ve got to have a plan. Like, you can't just leave me here. Hang it with hanging, holding the bag and out there hanging. We have to make sure that we have something in place. Whatever you want to do, you want us to sell the business, you want to give it do employees or for us, we've got to have a plan because it'll rip our family apart if there's no sort of plan in place.

 

And it started with a vice president, actually who said, well, what are you going to do when you're gone? And it was very emotional for my father, that conversation. But thank God we did. It turned into us really putting together a plan where we created another corporation that had the real estate in it and we had all the documents and all of the estate plan.

 

Everything was done so that the integrity of the company would hold, and that's, you know, I view my role as CEO today is a steward to my 205-and-growing employees. So, it was our responsibility to make sure that that was seamless, and the hard work paid off. And it was very sad period of time to lose him. We lost him really, really, just in nine weeks.

 

[00:11:58 - 00:12:18]

But it was also therapeutic for my sister and I to be able to have this and to be able to work on the business and figure out our way together. I know he'd be really proud of us. And so, by putting that in place, we were able to just grieve and grow versus struggling and having other types of challenges.

 

Gene Marks [00:12:20 - 00:12:42]

Sure. So, Karen, just give me some advice here for myself and for my audience, as well. You went through the whole succession planning thing. You obviously put together a good plan. Just share with me what are some of the things that you did right or what are some of the things you would have done differently if you had to do all of this again? And what are you thinking about – you had mentioned for the next generation as well, to make sure that it goes even smoother.

 

Karen Norheim [00:12:42 - 00:13:23]

Well, the good news was there was the estate planning as far as being able to cover the tax bill and make sure there was no financial issues. That, of course, was huge. I think we would have done whatever life insurance we were going to use for that, maybe outside of the business versus being a part of the business, because there's things that happen with banks and stuff and you don't quite have the control to ... just makes it easier. But all of that really was taken care of. I think the piece so really went well. We did that well. We did set – my dad mentored me to have a CEO and a leader who could, you know, come in after him. We did that really well. We locked in the culture that he created.

 

[00:13:23 - 00:14:41]

He was definitely. We consider him our founder because he created the culture and the way we worked and why we're so good at what we do. And I saw this is around the 2018 timeframe. I saw that if we did not lock this culture in, we could lose it, and so we spent a lot of time putting the words down on paper, figuring out the stories, figuring out who we are, and starting to communicate. Now, that has paid off. Paid off in COVID times, but then also paid off when we lost my father.

 

The stuff that I think we could really improve upon is; my sister, while knowing about the business and growing up in the business, hadn't worked in the business. So, she really felt like she had a void of just understanding what it means to be an owner and how she could fit in there. So, that's something that we've talked about, and going forward to make it better for the third generation, of which there are three children, we are really thinking, we've leaned into creating a family council. We have annual family assemblies. The adults have all, including our husbands, have all gone through a 24/7 leadership training so that we know how to work together. And so, we're really concentrating on how do we, as a family, be a high-performing team, right? Because it's just another team; a family.

 

[00:14:41 - 00:15:52]

Like, we have to be really good at this because we, we can be the ones. It's like the new "Game of Thrones" that's out, right? It's the only people who can destroy the house are the dragons themselves, right? But it's true. I mean, we are the ones that could really cause the problem. So, we recognize this and we're leaning into that. And our future also includes, we have one third gen who works in the company with us in our engineering department. So, getting her on the same kind of leadership training and getting her a little more involved and just understanding so it's not so overwhelming. And then the younger, the two younger are 13 and 15. So, we're trying to figure out how do we then, you know, they're not going to sit through online training. How do we incorporate them in? So, we're being really intentional.

 

We haven't quite figured it out exactly, but I feel as if we are putting those pieces in place, and we've hired, you know, I think it's really important to find your experts and to hire them and you don't have to do this whole thing alone. So, we've kind of found our people for that, and I'm feeling really good about that and I think that that will help to set us up for success in the future, too.

 

Gene Marks [00:15:53 - 00:16:01]

So, did you build, like, a little team of experts around you and without naming names, like who's part of this team, like attorneys, accountants, bankers?

 

Karen Norheim [00:16:02 - 00:17:44]

Yes, all of us. So, I do have our bankers a very close relationship with our banking partner who, they're fantastic, and I view, I was always taught as the CEO, as part of my dad's mentorship, you need to really, you manage the banking relationship, and it's a really important piece and making sure that's in a good place. So, definitely the banking. We also have lawyers that we work with. We actually have in house counsel. Due to a lot of the nature of the government works that we have and different pieces, it's very helpful. But we leverage another outside attorney group so that they help us with the experts in the estate piece and or best practices for family businesses. So, we have them kind of in our …

 

I like to say that my job is, I'm the Viking gardener, right? My descendant, Norwegian descendant. And so, my job is to garden and grow things and then go fight the battles of the business. So, these are my weapons, you know, the lawyers, the bankers are set up in there. These are my team of people.

 

And then we also have a coach that we work with that helps to facilitate both our family council meetings and does one-on-one coaching with myself and my sister. And then also our leadership team is also facilitated by her. And they've gone through the same training. So, yeah, I like to really lean into training, Gene. You know, I do things from whenever I can. I'm involved in YPO. My people get trained. We got to keep knowledge seeking, keep staying on the edge of learning, and that's how you stay, I think, competitive in that kind of growth mindset.

 

Gene Marks [00:17:46 - 00:18:28]

The way you run this business, you really do take a top-down approach to it. It seems like you're not a micromanager either. You put things into place, you hire and you pay for good people, whether they're employees or they're outsiders, and you let them do their jobs. And, yeah, that sounds to be the case, even when in this whole succession plan. Before we move on, because I do want to talk to you about your experiences as a female business leader, but before we move on from succession planning, and I hope people can take away some good advice from some of the things that you've said, just dig down a little bit more about this family council.

 

You've mentioned it a few times. What exactly is that like? How is it used? How official is it? Who's on it? Just give me some thoughts about your family council that might be helpful.

 

Karen Norheim [00:18:28 - 00:19:54]

So it is, right? Who's on it is myself and my sister and then our husbands and my brother-in-law. He has a business also, so the four of us are the core at the moment, and then that's going to be growing to the third-gen children. We're in the process of figuring that out. We do technically have a family council meeting with them, just to give a light overview once a year, but the core group meets monthly, sometimes in the summer, I would say maybe every other month, but we meet at least once or twice a quarter.

 

And we also have properties together, other things together. So, we manage our lives as a family in that meeting, and then we do at least once a year, I think we're going to go to twice a year, a family council meeting that includes the children, and this is a chance, you know, for them to know what we do and to tell them about how we're doing and kind of a light speak on that. The first time we did it, you know; we do a lot of work in the semiconductor industry recently, and it was interesting because the kids didn't know that even my brother-in-law's business, he has a construction business, he does a lot of work in zoos doing construction contracting. And it was just so cool to see the kids hear about what their dad was doing. And we think too often that they just know, but they don't. We have to tell them and share them. So, it creates a bit of formalization around us, making sure we have that happen. It's not that formal.

 

[00:19:55 - 00:21:16]

I'm a bit of an unstructured person. The formal piece is it's on the calendar and we know we're going to meet and we have our facilitator there because it is important. One thing that I did know is as the CEO and I tend to have leadership qualities, I might like to take charge. You can guess, Gene, my personality type, but in this family council I need to not be the leader, right? And so, it's really helpful to have that facilitator in there who helps to run the meeting. So, I'm not running the meeting, I'm just an equal participant. That's been also super, super helpful.

 

And there's a, there's a book, actually, and I don't have it on my desk here that has, from Harvard that I can certainly send to Eugene, and you can put in the links if you think it's helpful that also talks through all these different things to think about as a family business and even talks about having a family council. We may go so far as to have a family constitution, where we just say, hey, this is what it means to be part of the Norheim, della Berta, Ghazandi family. And this is what we care about.

 

And so, we're still defining that. But the structure is that we meet and we talk on a regular basis, and we put our hats on for family council, and we take off the hat of brother, sister, wife, brother-in-law. You know, we put those different hats on. And I think that's important, too.

 

Gene Marks [00:21:18 - 00:22:34]

You know, to make this work, you have to have the right personalities involved. I think everybody has got to be open to sharing information with each other. Some families don't like to do that. So, I think that's really important. I think it's important to involve your kids. I think it's important what you're doing is you make this a consistent, regular thing, a monthly meeting, you know, you know, an annual or biannual or semi-annual, your retreat type of thing.

 

And then I love your point about involving a facilitator, because I couldn't agree with you more. I mean, we all like to take over the meetings and having a professional come and - yeah, I mean, you're going to pay that person a few thousand bucks to like, you know, be there and facilitate – but it's a, it's a significant role that person plays to keep everybody on course and to make sure that you follow the agenda. So, all that's great advice. It's great stuff.

 

Okay, let me pivot a little bit, right? So, let's go back in time. In fact, let's go back to, and I know we won't dig into too further, but, you know, your father passing away, it's very traumatic. It's not, as you know, it's not just traumatic for you and your sister and your family, but you've got 200 employees, and I bet you've got some longtime employees that loved him, right? And we're part of this company, and, and everybody feels not only sad, but also a little bit scared about the future and the change and all that kind of stuff.

 

[00:22:35 - 00:23:04]

And to top it all off, we've got a woman that's taking over a company. That's a manufacturing company in Pennsylvania that's predominantly, I'm assuming predominantly male employees and in a male industry. And here you are, and not only that, bringing your sister in. So, now we've got two women that are in senior roles. Tell us a little bit about that story. How were you received and how was that transition?

 

Karen Norheim [00:23:04 - 00:24:28]

So, it actually was fairly smooth. I mean, when I reflect back on it, and that's because we did some work. So, my dad, in 2018, when we reboot the culture, that was also him saying, Karen's gonna be more of the leadership face, and that evolved into me in 2019, he had me as president and chief operating officer, and I ran our leadership team meetings, and I started doing the communications to the employees. And so, they were seeing me. He was still there active. We were still doing this together. But he kind of let me sort of move to the forefront. So, they were used to hearing from me and doing this. I wouldn't say he retired. He just spent a little less time in and at the buildings and then gave me that freedom to run and move forward.

 

I think that was critical and, you know, so that is one piece of it. And then I think all the culture work that we did to not lose who we were was important. But at the time, it was hard. Everybody was grieving, and we just kept putting the message out there that he would just want us to keep at it.

 

We like to say that our company is all about grit matters. Perseverance, heart and integrity just means you keep going despite obstacles. That's who we are. We just leaned into that. But it was tough, especially when you have - your mourning as a daughter, and then you're also helping employees mourn as sort of mentees and whatnot. It was difficult.

 

Gene Marks [00:24:30 - 00:25:18]

So, now, now you're running the business. You've had that experience. And you know what also fascinates me about you, Karen, is that it was just you and your sister. So, like, you didn't have, like, older brothers that, you know, could be kicking you around as you were growing up. You know what I mean? Like, it didn't sound like you were like you grew up in a house of boys, so you had this. You knew how big of an idiot we are, really. We never grow past the age of 12, no matter how old we are. You know, you don't know that until you grow up with boys.

 

[00:24:56 - 00:25:18]

I just, that transition itself fascinates me that because you're now dealing with men, so how often do you say to yourself or to somebody else, like, you know, this wouldn't happen if I was a guy? Does that happen often? And what do you do about that?

 

Karen Norheim [00:25:18 - 00:26:22]

Interesting question. I have a personality type that tends to push through it. I would say there's probably occasional moments where that does happen or where I think about certain things. But, you know, I had such good mentorship, and so if I rewind all the way back, Gene, to when I first came to American Crane, I did have some moments then where I ended up taking notes or someone said, well, maybe you'll be my secretary one day. I was like, okay, I'm not cool with that.

 

But my father, he taught us. I mean, yeah, we didn't grow up necessarily with brothers, but our dad showed us that there were no limits. He was my mentor. My mentor was a male, like, my primary hero in my life, and he just kind of said, there's no barriers here. You can do whatever it is you want to do and accomplish that. So, I think that was part of having that mindset. I didn't really recognize how few females there were until I started going to more industry events and more pieces out there. And I was like, oh, huh.

 

[00:26:23 - 00:27:45]

Luckily, I'm someone who doesn't mind being an outsider, so I feel I am an appropriate trailblazer in my industry because I'm willing to lean in and I can thrive in that. And I think we, as an industry, manufacturing and also material handling are getting better, and we're making the path smoother and so that more, hopefully female CEOs but also employees and will come into our ranks. So, I feel like that has happened. I do know that maybe mid-career, I was very conscientious about speaking up, not take not being the notetaker. I sit at the table.

 

You know, I think those are maybe from experiences and mentorship from others. And also, my dad, I remember him one specific time, you know, a couple times, like, Karen, listen, like, make sure you're listening to people and letting them do the actions versus you wanting to solve all the problems. So, you know, good mentorship - obviously, he was like a sponsor for me, right? He wanted me to be successful.

 

He saw me in the CEO role before I ever really saw myself. So, those are some of those pieces. And then, you know, I also joined groups that were helpful. You know, I was very active in Women in Manufacturing for years, which, you know, then you get to talk to other people with similar experiences. Yes, hopefully I've answered your question, Gene, but I feel like I have.

 

Gene Marks [00:27:45 - 00:27:56]

No, you have it's very helpful. And you just said something also that sparks to me, as well. You just said you joined Women in Manufacturing. Do you belong to any other women's business groups besides Women in Manufacturing?

 

Karen Norheim [00:27:57 - 00:28:11]

Just Women in Manufacturing. Although I do participate, I am a YPO member, and I am trying to be more participative in their women's groups inside of that organization. But Women in Manufacturing has been fantastic for me.

 

Gene Marks [00:28:11 - 00:28:48]

And so directly then. So, you actually went and joined this group, Women in Manufacturing. So why is that? Why did you join that group? I can't imagine. If I was running American Crane, I can't imagine ever joining a group called Men in Manufacturing. What's the point? But it's important. There are a lot of women professional groups around, you know, around the country, and I've often wondered, what do you get out of belonging to that group or gravitating more towards other, say, female executives?

 

Karen Norheim [00:28:48 - 00:28:58]

Well, and if I, if I think back that the first, first one was Women in Nuclear, was that because we were in the nuclear industry. So, I was in Women and Nuclear first, and ...

 

Gene Marks [00:28:58 - 00:28:58]

Wow.

 

Karen Norheim [00:28:58 - 00:29:01]

And, you know, those were also. There were ...

 

Gene Marks [00:29:01 - 00:29:02]

That's a story.

 

Karen Norheim [00:29:02 - 00:31:30]

There was potential customers there, too. But really what it did was I got to see role models and people on stage. They had leaders talking. And I think the reason it was so good is because, you know, it's tough for me to. Because I do ... I work with so many men. I work with people of all kinds of diverse backgrounds, you know, like, so I really, I believe that everybody can mentor, you know, there's a lot of. Anyway, I'll stop there for a second.

 

When I went to Women in Nuclear, the most profound, and it's something that I actually talk about a lot, is there was a woman on the stage. She was a CEO of, I think, one of the big commercial nuclear, you know, companies at that time. And she had, she talked about her life and how she had children and how her husband stayed at home and how she pursued her career. And like, I just saw this vision of what her life was like. And I'm like, oh, my gosh, that's what I want. That's what I would like. I could do that. That could be me.

And so, I think what was so good was I got to see different versions of people and listen, I'm a very active in my material handling industry group, my Crane Manufacturer Association of America, Vistage. So, I'm looking all places for role models. But there I was able to really see some role models on how to be my version of a CEO and what my recipe, what do I want that to be? What do I not want that to be? So, I think that is definitely a part of what that brings. Just because you're guaranteed to have a lot of see females in different roles. And I got involved with Women in Manufacturing. It's probably been over 10 years.

 

So, it was before I got to that CEO role also, and I think that also just helped to build confidence. Go to a conference in a safe space, and not just as a young woman, just kind of gaining confidence and pieces there. And I think seeking that as a female was helpful for me. And I do think even for the males listening, there are groups that you can seek that give you confidence in whatever your version of what that is.

 

And all of it is about putting yourself out, getting out of your comfort zone and learning something new and seeing again. You know, I love storytelling as, like, I think how we learn. And I think the more you can see other people's stories and you can see how they've gotten where they are, the more you can say, okay, well, I can see myself that way. I don't know. Hopefully that's, you know, makes some sense.

 

Gene Marks [00:31:30 - 00:32:22]

That makes sense. You made an interesting comment, as well, when you were saying you joined the Women in Nuclear group, which, by the way, I cannot imagine ever ... I can't even imagine what those meetings must be like. But, okay, so you joined this Women in Nuclear group and you said, like, you know, you got like, a couple of customers, you know, out of that. And I do think to myself, and I have to ask you as well, like, because you're still so much in the minority in this industry of, like, women CEOs or women in senior position.

 

I mean, it's growing, obviously, and getting better. It's certainly not the 1960s, you know, but do you feel like more of a connection? Like, if you go to a meeting with a prospective customer and there's like another female there that's of a senior position, you know, like yours, do you, do you think to yourself, like, there's, like, somebody there that I can speak to more than the guys in this room? Like, do you think it's an advantage?

 

Karen Norheim [00:32:23 - 00:32:55]

Maybe. I don't know that I. I'm not really deterred by the male or the female, but perhaps? I mean, but I think it's the same as if I went to Penn State and there's another Penn Stater in the room. You know, or I'm like an avid skier and I get to talk to somebody about how they love it, too. I feel like there's those connection points in general. Just maybe it's one more connection that I have, Gene, that you don't have, but we all have, like, different versions. You know, that's probably where I would think that that would lie.

 

Gene Marks [00:32:58 - 00:33:11]

We're almost out of time. I mean, Karen, I have a million more questions for you, but, like, let's ... let me kind of cut down to the chase. You had mentioned earlier that I don't know if it's your daughter or your sister's daughter, if it's your niece, that's the, like, working engineering in your area.

 

Karen Norheim [00:33:11 - 00:33:16]

Yes. I actually don't have children. My sister has three children, so, yes, it is my niece.

 

Gene Marks [00:33:16 - 00:33:21]

Got it. Okay, so it's your niece. So, and if I can ask, like, how old is she?

 

Karen Norheim [00:33:21 – 00:33:23]

She’s 20 … she just turned 25.

 

Gene Marks [00:33:23 - 00:33:43]

She's young woman that's doing this, like just ... Perfect. Okay. What advice do you have for her? She's starting now. It's 2024. Here she is with all the knowledge that you can give her about how to operate not only in this industry, but as a female leader in this industry as well. If you had her alone, what advice would you give her to succeed?

 

Karen Norheim [00:33:43 - 00:33:55]

I try to get her alone at least once a month. We have a little CEO lunch, and we just sit down. She obviously doesn't report to me. She's in a different area. But I do try to give her that one on one time with me.

 

Gene Marks [00:33:55 - 00:33:57]

Even better.

 

Karen Norheim [00:33:57 - 00:34:17]

And so, for her, I always am encouraging her to get out of her comfort zone, to keep trying new things and being brave, and then also working on, you know, talking through anytime she has, like, the imposter syndrome, which can happen to all of us of just not feeling worthy every day.

 

Gene Marks [00:34:17 - 00:34:20]

Everybody has imposter syndrome, by the way. Yeah. Regardless of age.

 

Karen Norheim [00:34:20 - 00:35:07]

And so, working through that and then working through making sure as a, as a future potential owner or leader in the company, who knows where that will end up. That's what we hope. I also don't want her to feel any pressure, like she has to do this. Like, there's some, you know, we're trying to set up our future so that whatever their passions of my sister's children are, they pursue those, and we don't make them feel obligated. We want them to do this because it is a joy. It is a joy of my life that I got to spend 20 years, you know, or almost 20 years working with my father and learning this industry. I want that to be the same for her.

 

So, you know, those are big pieces. And also tapping, I guess the other big thing, and this is something I learned recently that I wish I would have learned sooner, is tapping into our emotions. Like, if we have emotions, we should not be pushing them down. We should be leaning in and saying, well, why do we feel that way? Why do we feel frustrated? Why are we getting upset about this? Or I'm having a moment of joy.

 

[00:35:21 - 00:35:49]

What does that mean? What does that tell me about what I want to be working on and what I love to do? So, those are some of those pieces. But continue to be brave and keep trying new things and that making sure she knows that she belongs here. And she's actually our first female engineer also, so she's a trailblazer. So, just making sure she feels supported and being that mentor to her that my father was to me.

 

Gene Marks [00:35:51 - 00:36:10]

Karen Norheim is the president, CEO, and co-owner of American Crane located in Douglasville, Pennsylvania. Karen, thank you so much for talking with me. Great insights and great advice and I want to wish you best of success. I know we'll stay connected. I'm sure we'll be seeing each other or crossing paths in our travels. So, thanks so much for joining.

 

Karen Norheim [00:36:10 - 00:36:12]

Thank you for having me. It's my pleasure.

 

Gene Marks [00:36:13 - 00:36:48]

Do you have a topic or a guest that you would like to hear on THRIVE? Please let us know. Visit payx.me/thrivetopics and send us your ideas or matters of interest. Also, if your business is looking to simplify your HR, payroll, benefits, or insurance services, see how Paychex can help, visit the resource hub at paychex.com/worx. That's W-O-R-X.

 

Paychex can help manage those complexities while you focus on all the ways you want your business to thrive. I'm your host, Gene Marks, and thanks for joining us. Till next time, take care.

 

Announcer [00:36:50 - 00:36:55]

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